Bioterrorism: Are we ready?

When the unthinkable becomes thinkable

When the unthinkable becomes thinkable

September 09, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP
(Page 2 of 3)

But as is often the case with conventional wisdom, the equation is wrong. Locally, disaster management plans have been in the pipeline for years; the events of last fall simply hastened their development.

Shortly after joining Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., as chief executive officer in January 2000, John Sherwood was approached by emergency room personnel about a lack of preparedness.

With a military background and a heavy interest in pre-hospital emergency care, Sherwood was quick to embrace preparedness.

Mideast peace talks, held at the Clarion Inn and Conference Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 1999, alerted Sherwood to how close the area was to being impacted by events on the global stage. Year 2000 planning showed how much work needed to be done just to plan for run-of-the-mill disasters.

"Bioterrorism is something that might happen," Sherwood says. "But we're trying to broaden it beyond bioterrorism."Cathy Webb, Washington County Health Department program supervisor for communicable diseases and bioterrorism, says disaster planning began in earnest in 1999.


Pennsylvania hospitals in Chambersburg and Waynesboro had disaster plans in place, but 9-11 forced leaders to take a closer look at procedures. In the last year, hospital personnel have regularly met with county agencies, and a regional coalition of Pennsylvania counties working together.

But the notion that warfare had changed direction began earlier than that. Always sensitive to bioweapons, Newby's interest in biological agents increased after mentions of chemical weapons use during The Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Still, health care providers weren't quite ready when the anthrax scares hit last fall.

In the days and weeks following 9-11, while health professionals responded to one anthrax scare situation after another, they counted on shells of plans to guide them.

"We didn't have a choice," Webb, a registered nurse, remembers. "We made plans as we went along. It wasn't the ideal way of making plans."

Learning to share

Bioterrorism preparedness may sound sexy but is largely a cerebral endeavor consisting of many meetings. From late 2001 and into this year, regional health officials met to create disaster guidelines, such as Washington County Hospital's Orange Plan, an inch-thick list of names, contact numbers and outlines of what each hospital department is responsible for.Committees are meeting now to flesh out the disaster blueprint. Decontamination tents will be purchased, and decon teams trained to deal with potential risks.

Across the Tri-State area, plans detail what should be done in the case of a disaster, biological or otherwise. From locking down emergency rooms to evacuation to what safety gear must be worn, the plans reinforce prior training while ensuring personnel are ready for whatever comes their way.

What if, for instance, the nation's capitol must be evacuated? Jefferson County director of emergency services Darrell Penwell calls it a big issue.

Later this year, talk will continue to create a comprehensive traffic control plan in the event the Eastern Panhandle county is faced with a sudden influx of people. The Red Cross, Penwell says, is responsible for housing evacuees if they stay.

Newby says that through the first six months of this year, planners convened weekly, with smaller steering committees gathering multiple times a week to formulate detailed plans.

"What we found were already a lot of good systems in place in the county and we're just building on them," says John Massimilla, vice president for administration at Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital.

"I think everybody was doing their own thing and after (9-11) we regularly include folks from outside the organization now and vice versa. It's crucial so you don't have to duplicate resources. It could mean someone's life when you're dealing with an X-factor and just knowing the right people to contact is very helpful."

Webb calls the newfound spirit of cooperation, where left hand works in tandem with right, a rare bright spot to emerge from the wreckage of the terror attacks. She used to have sporadic contact with Washington County hospital. Today, there are daily conversations, and the two organizations are teaming up for joint educational efforts on smallpox and West Nile Virus.

"Before this," she says, "it was basically (the hospital) would do what the law said they had to do and I would follow up on it. Now there's a certain give and take."

Similarly, an anthrax scare in the Jefferson Memorial service area called for several agencies - hospital, fire, pharmacists and more -to work quickly to set up an offsite triage area to alleviate stress on the hospital.

(But) when the hospital bought a $20,000 inflatable decontamination shed to replace the old facility in the basement of the original building, away from the emergency room, top-of-the-line decon suits couldn't be purchased (though the hospital will have suits of some kind eventually).

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